ESAs: Education Choice with a Side of Accountabaloney

Florida Speaker of the House, Richard Corcoran, has made Universal School Choice a priority this session and President Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education, a woman who has spent hundreds of millions supporting publicly funded vouchers for private schools. School Choice will be in the headlines. It is time to learn about ESAs or Education Savings Accounts, heralded as the “cutting edge of the reforms of choice.”

Rather than a simple voucher system that allows students to use state money to attend private schools, ESAs allow parents to use state funding for a “customized” education for their children, paying for a wide array of educational services: tutoring, exam fees, online programs, in addition to tuition.  Unused ESA funds can even be saved to pay for college. ESAs will expand the publicly funded education realm, creating (in theory) a marketplace of education products for parents to choose from and allow public funding of those choices with little to no true accountability. ESAs will usher in what education reformers refer to as the “post-facility” education system, where children learn from a smart phone, instead of in brick and mortar classrooms. ESAs are supported by both Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Look for their model bills, establishing or expanding ESA programs, in a statehouse near you.

Please note: we have several friends who have children with complex medical and/or education needs, who are currently using and seem to be benefiting from Gardiner Scholarships, Florida’s current ESA program, which is specifically for children with disabilities. This blog is not questioning the current program, which may be an appropriate way to provide special services to children in need, but we do have fiscal and accountability concerns regarding rumored plans to expand the current ESA to an Universal program for all students.

[These ESAs should not be confused with the Cloverdell Education Saving Account or the “Education IRA” which was introduced in 2002 as a means of saving for college and other education expenses. Cloverdell ESA allow a tax free investment vehicle for personal investments for education while this new reference to ESAs involves using public education tax dollars to fund an array of (mostly private) education options or “customizations.”]

To learn more about ESAs, I watched Strategy Sessions from the 2015 and 2016 ExcelinEd National Summit on Education Reform. ExcelinEd is another name for Jeb Bush’s FEE. I have covered the “highlights” below.

Strategy Session 5: 2015: The Year of Education Savings Accounts

According to the 2015 Summit, 2015 was “The Year of Education Savings Accounts.” Moderator William Oberndorf explained that, after 25 years of Education Reform, the “promise of Choice” was to “help a lot of kids trapped in underperforming schools”. He applauded states, like Florida, who had applied a “range of different education reforms with scale and efficiency”, calling individual states “the laboratories to do experiments… that we all can learn from…”

Adam Peshek (from the FEE) described ESA’s as “partial vouchers”, allowing parents the ability to manage and direct their child’s education funding in a customizable way (6:00). For example, a child might attend a few classes at a private school, get some tutoring for other classes and get some therapy “on the side”. ESAs would move the conversation from “school choice” to “education choice”. Mr. Peshek felt this would encourage parents to economize and customize, because unused funds could be saved for college tuition (11:00); claiming that public schools and charter schools, currently, have NO incentive to economize. At the time of the EIE15, 2 states had enacted ESAs: Arizona in 2011 and Florida in 2014 (known now as the Gardiner Scholarship, previously the PLSA, it is limited to children with special needs). In 2015, Nevada passed a nearly universal ESA program, with the primary requirement being prior public school attendance

Nevada Senator Scott Hammond, who championed his state’s Universal ESA bill, called ESAs “an idea whose time has come”. He said the beauty of the ESA is that we will see education wrapping around what the child wants, loves and buys into. (He joked how no one in his family loves Algebra, but someone down the street might, at 21:45). He went on to compare ESA’s to iPhones: “the ESA is the operating system and people are going to come up with all kinds of apps people will use the operating system for.” Please note, Senator Hammond’s program has yet to fund a single student.

Florida parent, Katie Swingle, explained how she used an ESA to partially fund private school tuition and therapy for her young son who has autism and apraxia. She praised the PLSA for providing half of the $28,000/year tuition their specialized private school charges and credits the program with “changing lives.” (24:42).

The final presenter, Derrell Bradford (Executive Director, NYCAN) stated “I am a huge fan of ESAs because I am a huge fan of disruption.” He was excited to see what sorts of education markets would grow out of this disruption of public education.

At this point, the conversation turned to Accountability (see if you can smell the accountabaloney…). Mr. Peshek advised (at 40:25):

With the ESA “we need to think of accountability in a new way. Test based accountability has been the norm with schools because, with schools, it’s kind of easy to tell how a student is doing, they’re getting all their education at one school.” With an ESA, however, a child might be homeschooled, tutored or enrolled in a class and “the only way to hold all the vendors accountable is to make each of them take a test which is ridiculous.” (emphasis mine, and I will say it was refreshing to hear someone from the FEE discuss how ridiculous testing is, parents across Florida completely agree.)

He went on to describe what he called “next generation accountability” or “real parent accountability” suggesting that parents could rate vendors much the same way that riders rate Uber drivers. He felt a website, where parents could crowd source experiences, much like Yelp rates restaurants, would “empower parents with information they didn’t have.” As to whether legislators would agree, he suggested that “test based accountability doesn’t make a lot of sense,” especially when you’re talking about children with special needs. According to Mr. Peshek, the best way to hold ESA recipients accountable is the Yelp or Uber model. Yes, he said the state could use crowd sourcing to hold accountable providers of education to our most vulnerable.

SO, if I understand this correctly, MY CHILDREN (who attend public schools) are required to participate in endless hours of expensive, computer based, state mandated, high stakes assessments, district mandated progress monitoring and test prep; their teachers and schools are ranked and rewarded and/or punished for those scores; promotion, retention, remediation, course grades and graduation decisions depend on those scores; and there are even legislative mandates that define amount of uninterrupted time a kindergarten must receive reading instruction, often leading to the elimination of free play for our youngest learners. These things, we have been told, we need because of “accountability.” On the other hand, ESA recipients will be handed my locally raised tax dollars to do what they please, have no testing requirements and accountability will be assured through “crowd sourcing.”

That is accountabaloney, for sure.

Moving on to 2016, and EIE16: STRATEGY SESSION II – ESAs & the New Frontier in Educational Choice

During the 2016 session, Adam Peshek was the moderator. He reminded everyone that, though the education “pendulum” may swing, the one constant is the expansion of School Choice.

The first panelist was Robert Enlow (President and Chief Executive Officer, EdChoice, 6:00). He explained that legislators like ESAs because they provide “a path to broad eligibility”, meaning they can easily be scaled up to include all children. He advised states to write ESA legislation placing the program in the Department of Treasury and cautioned against programs being placed under control of the Department of Education “for obvious reasons.”  (I’ll admit this wasn’t obvious to me, but, later (at 17:00), Gerard Robinson explained that reformers question whether a DOE can be trusted to “regulate its own competition.”)

Mr. Enlow did touch on academic and fiscal responsibility suggesting that “true accountability, in this case, is if a parent doesn’t use the money correctly, the state can kick them out, reclaim the money or… could be convicted of fraud.”

It appears they have moved beyond the “Uber” model and place the burden of accountability on the parent, with apparently no outcomes measure, at all.

Gerard Robinson (former Florida Commissioner of Education, now a Research Fellow for American Enterprise Institute) discussed the pros and cons of having the Department of Education involved in the ESA program. He felt the more appropriate regulatory agency was the Department of Treasury because ESA “is a finance driven program working in the school choice marketplace.” (19:50)

Allysia Finley (Editorial Writer, The Wall Street Journal) had interviewed parents who participated in ESA programs. She reviewed the flexibility of the ESAs in providing education “customization”, noting one parent even spent some of their funding on a Cat in the Hat Board Game. She noted that, for the special needs children she followed in Florida, the ESA did not cover their child’s entire tuition and additional funding was required, sometimes in the form of a scholarship. She also noted that the new ESA/Tax Credit Scholarship marketplace had resulted in the opening and expanding of some schools but the shutting down of others. While this was disruptive, especially to special needs children who had just enrolled and were making gains, she felt it did “provide a modicum of accountability.”

So, with ESAs, schools, or other vendors, are “held accountable” when they go out of business, leaving parents scrambling for a new placement. Great.

Later, when Ms. Finley noted that Arizona parents were buying courses from private schools a la carte, using co-ops and private tutors, and Mr Robinson questioned (at 1:04;12) “and are they all quality? That’s another story…” (raising his hands as if to say “we have know idea how to assess the quality of these programs”).

So, even these ESA proponents question the quality of services purchased with ESAs, yet they give no further advice on how to monitor such programs. That is apparently left for another discussion another day.

Finally, they have not yet found a constitutional way to fund Universal ESAs:

The final presenter was Grant Hewitt, Chief of Staff, Nevada State Treasurer’s Office, who oversees Nevada Universal ESA program, the most expansive in the country (31:30). The program is overseen by the Department of Treasury “because it is not an education program, it is a banking program.” In Nevada, they have enrolled 8,000 students, answering thousands of questions regarding what gets funded, but haven’t funded a single account yet. Why? Per Mr. Hewitt, “we have had some legal issues. We’re having to redo our funding formula.”

To be clear, the constitutionality of the Nevada ESA was challenged in Court. In September 2016, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled the ESA Vouchers unconstitutional. The Court’s ruling made it clear that “the Nevada Legislature violated a constitutional prohibition against the use of public education funding for any purpose other than the operation of the public schools. The ESA voucher program would have diverted funds from the public schools for private education expenditures.”

Despite the court’s ruling, Mr. Hewitt remains undaunted (watch at 47:25). “I want to be real clear, in Nevada, the program is deemed to be constitutional by the Supreme Court of our state, we are administering that program up until the point of funding. All the Supreme Court in Nevada said is that our funding formula is not compliant, so we don’t have the means to fund the account but we do have the means to implement.” [For the record, 8,000 enrolled ESA student at $5,700 each, adds up to a $45.6 MILLION dollar annual program.)

So, Nevada’s “Banking Program” has no legal means of funding but implementation continues… At 51:20, Mr. Peshek further discusses the constitutionality of ESA programs. He claims the only remaining stumbling block is the funding stream and suggests they have legal groups searching through the Nevada Constitution to find other ways of funding the program.

I encourage you to follow the above links and watch these sessions. These are the “experts” in ESAs and they are clearly building the plane in the air.

ESAs are the “Wave of the Future” and they are coming to a state near you.

ESAs are popular because they allow parents to escape burdensome testing mandates and other accountability measures, providing them the funding to create a customized educational experience for their child, with essentially NO accountability requirements or education standards, other that turning in the proper receipts and allowing the marketplace to “sort things out.” Who is watching to assure these children receive an appropriate education? Where is the fiscal responsibility for education tax dollars? Why not reduce the burdensome mandates on the public schools? Because, then, parents might have no incentive to “escape” their local public schools and this new piecemeal education marketplace needs funded customers to flourish.

During her Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education, Ms. DeVos was asked to defend her long-time advocacy for the use of public funds for private schools with a minimum of accountability. She repeatedly dodged Senator Kaine’s questions regarding whether she supported equal accountability for all publicly funded schools. Her prepared statement for the hearing closed with “For me, it’s simple: I trust parents, and I believe in our children.” Does that sound familiar? It comes directly from the ESA playbook.

New York Magazine summarized how “trusting parents” with taxpayers’ funds, without true accountability, can lead to accountabaloney:

“Who’s left out in a publicly financed education system in which individual “moms and dads” call all the shots? The people financing that system, the public itself. Yes, many of them are “moms and dads,” too — but in their capacity as taxpayers and as allegedly self-governing voters they should have the right to ensure that public dollars benefit the public as a whole via a system that offers equal access and train a well-educated citizenry. And this is the very idea that separates DeVos from actual defenders of public education, including many who support public-school choice and public charter schools… Is it possible parents handed a public subsidy and total freedom to use it however they want could make a poor education decision for their kids or their community? Of course they could, particularly if they are being advised by their spiritual leaders to steer those public dollars to the Academy of the Vengeful God, where boys are taught to be servant-leaders to their submissive homemaking wives.”

When states create programs that give public education funds to private individuals, allowing them to spend as they please, with few regulations, and, at the same time, expect students and certified teachers in traditional public schools to submit to an onerous, test and punish accountability system, that is accountabaloney: It is not fair, it is not fiscally responsible and, by allowing parents free range to spend tax generated education dollars, it eliminates local control and fails to hold private, public and home schoolers to the same accountability standards, placing the bulk of the accountability burden on those who chose public schools.

If ESAs are “the Wave of the Future”, then they are a fiscally irresponsible tsunami headed to destroy our local public schools. Education advocates must remain on alert.


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